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HERITAGE HAUNTS: Going Wild With Natives - Abutilon palmeri

Curated by Cathy Tylka, for Let’s Talk Plants! July 2024. Article by Pat Pawlowski, originally published May 2011, No. 100, Let’s Talk Plants!        

Going Wild With Natives - Abutilon palmeri

There is a special kind of beauty in Palmer’s abutilon, Abutilon palmeri.

“What the heck is an Abutilon?,” you might ask.

Well, it’s not a very commonly known plant; you probably won’t find it at a typical garden store. Most likely you’ll have to make a trip to a specialty nursery – one that carries lots of California native plants. But it’s worth a special trip, and here’s why: The sight of a full-grown Palmer’s abutilon in bloom can only be described as AWESOME.

The flower color, the flower color!

When I was attending San Diego State University some years ago, running (literally) a bit late, I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of a 5’ x 6’ Palmer’s abutilon in full bloom. The cup-shaped flowers were a richer-than-rich yellow, with hints of apricot.

Hot stuff!

Picture those impossibly glowing golden – oooh – flowers on silvery blue green pettable leaves, and you’ll get the idea.

Pettable? Leaves?

Yes, impossibly soft, voluptuously strokable leaves. You won’t need to get a pussycat.

In our sometimes too-garish world, abutilon leaves soothe and please the eye. And think of it – those velvetlike leaves are evergreen. During bloom season, which can occur off and on throughout spring and summer and even winter in my yard, the plant excites the eyeballs by producing those rich golden flowers.

Yet, with all this beauty, planting an abutilon can also be a practical enterprise: It doesn’t need a lot of water, but it does appreciate well-draining soil. It is a fast grower; in case you are in a hurry. It likes sunshine but accepts some shade inland.

It doesn’t take a lot of effort on your part. No shaping is needed since it will form a well-rounded bush all by itself. The unobtrusive tiny fruits that eventually form quickly dry up; I just leave them alone and they eventually fall off.

Last but never least, it attracts beneficial insects, which we all know is of great benefit to ourselves and the entire ecosystem. One particular insect visitor is the Arizona powdered-skipper, which admittedly is uncommon in San Diego proper, but you never know for sure when one might show up. (Skippers are kind of a cross between a butterfly and a moth.)

Palmer’s abutilon belongs to the mallow family and occurs naturally in desert-like areas of San Diego County. But, you might ask, who was Palmer anyway? Well, naturally it has to be complicated. Research on various websites, including those of respected botanical gardens and universities, provides two different persons as the basis for the moniker palmeri: Prolific plant collector Dr. Edward Palmer, and plant explorer Ernest Jesse Palmer. Take your pick. As we know, the internet provides lots of information and some of it is true.

This much I can vouch for: After I spied that woo-hoo abutilon at SDSU, I knew I had to get one. So, at a California Native Plant Society’s sale, I did get one. You can get one too.

Then, go ahead. Pet that abutilon. I do.


Member Pat Pawlowski is a writer/lecturer/garden consultant who likes to chase butterflies.



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